Full list: Agriculture in the News

WCAX: Vt. farmers cry foul over new raw milk rules

Oct 01, 2014
Full Article & Video

MONTPELIER, Vt. – New policies on the sale of raw milk in Vermont started Oct. 1, and dairy farmers who sell the unpasteurized milk are crying foul.

At a press conference Wednesday, they said the new testing procedures will add unreasonable costs for farmers and will not produce a better product for consumers.

“We had a successful amendment to the raw milk law last spring from the Legislature which allow these tier two farmers to deliver their milk to their customers at farmers markets, which has opened up some economic opportunity for this part of the agricultural economy. This policy goes exactly in the opposite direction,” said Andrea Stander of the group Rural Vermont.

WCAX: Raw milk producers protest new Vt. rules

Sep 30, 2014
Full Article

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The Vermont Legislature passed a law to make it easier for farmers to sell raw milk, but raw milk producers don’t like the new rules.

Rural Vermont, a farm advocacy group, is sending a formal letter of protest to the Agency of Agriculture, saying the new rules burden farmers with unjustified costs and discriminate against producers and consumers.

Denver Post: GMO labeling measure in Colorado triggers heated debate

By Colleen O’Connor
Full Article

With the Nov. 4 ballot measure, Colorado is at the forefront of a fierce food fight raging across the nation: whether or not to label foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, so consumers can easily see if the food they buy is a product of genetic engineering.

Similar ballot initiatives failed in California and Washington in the past two years.

This spring, Vermont became the first state to approve GMO labeling. But then a group of national organizations — led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association — filed a lawsuit in federal court that challenges the new law. This could be the first of many lawsuits to block mandatory GMO labeling, experts say, and now Colorado jumps into the high-stakes debate.

“It will be a hot issue for quite a while in this state,” said Katie Abrams, an assistant professor at Colorado State University who researches consumer understanding of food labels. “And it’s going on in more places than just Colorado.”

GMO labeling will also be on the ballot in Oregon, and this year about 35 similar bills were introduced in 20 states.

If the measure passes in Colorado, by 2016 packaged or raw foods made with GMOs that are sold in retail outlets must be labeled with the phrase “produced with genetic engineering.” Exemptions include processed food intended for immediate human consumption, like at restaurants and delis.

Supporters of the Colorado measure — including Natural Grocers and Eco-Justice Ministries — say mandatory labeling would create transparency for consumers, allowing them to choose what they want to serve at their family tables.

But opponents — including the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Agribusiness Association — say the measure would cost Colorado taxpayers millions of dollars, increase grocery costs for families, and create expensive new bureaucratic requirements that would hurt the state’s farmers.

As the vote nears, events that explore GMOs are popping up around the metro area, such as the Seeds of Doubt conference in Broomfield on Oct. 11, featuring researchers who’ve studied GMOs and their impact on health and environment.

GMO opponents believe that the process is harmful to health, pointing to studies that connect GMO with 65 health risks, from allergies to infertility. GMO supporters point to hundreds of peer-reviewed studies they say show the safety of genetically engineered foods. Both sides agree that no long-term human health studies have been conducted.

“It’s about education,” said Cheryl Gray, a registered dietitian who helped organize Seeds of Doubt. “We’re bringing in people involved in this world to tell their stories and bring their research forward. … Being consumers, we want to know, and we want transparency.”

Whole Foods, which supports the measure, will hold a tasting of non-GMO foods on Oct. 18 from noon to 3 p.m. at all of its Colorado stores.

And Monday at the sixth annual Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit in Boulder, there are two workshops on GMOs featuring such national experts as Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of Just Label It campaign.

“A lot of chefs are trying to practice a more natural and organic philosophy in cooking food,” said Michael Scott, lead chef instructor at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder. “If I have ingredients that I can’t find out are GMO produced or not, I can’t make a proper decision whether to use them or not.”

Supporters hope, and opponents fear, that labeling will lead to an economic boycott of GMO food products.

But experts aren’t so sure.

“Most research on consumer buying shows that people act on taste, price, convenience and other factors,” said Abrams of CSU. “They usually do what’s best for the wallet.”

Whole Foods isn’t waiting to find out. Last year, the company made the decision to label all food products if they contain GMOs, a massive project that should be complete by 2018. But small businesses like Denver Urban Homesteading say the costs created by mandatory labeling would put small markets out of business.

As the debate plays out in Colorado, Bradford Heap has already forged ahead, converting his two restaurants — Salt in Boulder and Colterra in Niwot — into GMO-free eateries.

It took six months to source all the products, from meat down to vinegar, making sure it wasn’t produced with corn.

What is a GMO?

Genetically modified foods are derived from organisms whose DNA has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, according to the World Health Organization. Most genetically modified crops have been developed to resist plant diseases or better tolerate herbicides. The most important GMO crops are corn, soy, cotton and canola. According to the FDA, most processed foods include some of these ingredients, like cornstarch in soups and sauces and corn syrup as a general purpose sweetener. Sugar is also included, because the sugar Americans consume either comes from cane or genetically engineered sugar beets.

On the ballot

Voters will be asked to vote on whether food that has been genetically modified or treated with genetically modified material should be labeled “Produced with Genetic Engineering” starting July 1, 2016. Foods that would be exempt include food from animals that are not genetically modified but have been fed or injected with genetically modified food or drugs; certain food not packaged for retail sale and intended for immediate human consumption; alcoholic beverages; and medically prescribed foods.


Watchdog.org: GMO labeling not about money for organics, says Vermont organic farmer-senator

By Bruce Parker
Full Article

Mandatory GMO labeling laws are a break-even bet at best for supporters of the policy, typically organic activists, a Vermont senator and organic farmer says.

“Right now organic is benefiting from there not being labeling,” state Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, told Vermont Watchdog.

If the organic industry loses or merely breaks even from GMO labeling, it would present a rarity in politics: interest groups spending massive money but expecting no financial benefit in return.

Zuckerman, the sponsor behind Vermont’s GMO labeling law and a farmer who owns the Full Moon “certified organic” farm in Hinesburg, Vt., argues that the state’s mandatory labeling of genetically engineered ingredients might actually harm the sale of organics.

“The only way consumers can reliably avoid GMOs is to buy organic food,” Zuckerman said. “But if all products are labeled, the products that are not organic and not GMO will become more apparent to the consumer. So for consumers who are buying organic specifically to avoid GMOs, they will have a wider range of options, not a narrower one.”

Once GMO-averse consumers are able to buy non-organic products marked GMO-free, they will, and the organics industry will lose sales, Zuckerman said.

“I’m not saying it will be negative to organic, but it certainly should dispel the notion that it will be helpful to organic,” he said.

This summer, pro-organic special interests have been spending lavishly defending Vermont’s new GMO labeling law.

Ceres Trust, a foundation billing itself as “an organic agriculture research initiative,” donated $50,000 to Food Fight Fund, Vermont’s legal defense fund for GMO labeling.

The foundation, which lists operations in Northfield, Minn. and Milwaukee and Middleton, Wis., is run by philanthropists Judith Kern and Kent Whealy. Kern and Whealy give hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the Center for Food Safety led by renowned organic activist Andrew Kimbrell.

With solid funding from Ceres Trust, the Center for Food Safety presently seeks to intervene as a defendant in Vermont’s court battle with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a move supported by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.

Corporate watchdog SumOfUs and liberal political policy non-profit MoveOn.org have joined Ceres Trust, donating $78,000 and $53,000 respectively to Food Fight Fund Vermont.

Unlike Zuckerman, Will Allen, an organic grower who owns Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vt., thinks labeling spells the end for foods that contain GMOs.

“What’s going to happen is there won’t be very much genetically modified food on the shelves,” Allen told Vermont Watchdog. “If you look at the EU, you have a tough time finding any food that says genetic modification on it. The companies there realize we can’t sell this. As soon as you label it (as containing GMOs), you can’t sell it.

Allen says labeling will force the elimination of all GMOs in the United States, in contrast to Zuckerman, who sees a future where consumers read labels and choose whether they want to buy food with genetically modified ingredients.

“There won’t be this scare on the part of people being afraid of genetically modified food, because it won’t be out there,” Allen said.

Companies like General Foods, Kraft and Kellogg’s will avoid genetically modified foods out of fear of labeling, Allen said. The top seed companies, however, will continue to put up a fight.

“So it’s like DuPont, Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta – it’s not a big club, but they control most of the seed supply. They also are the genetic engineers. They would like to keep as much genetic engineering seed on the market as possible because they are the only ones providing it,” he says.”

WCAX: Fall hearing could determine fate of Vt. GMO labeling law

Sep 15, 2014
By Kyle Midura
Full Article & Video

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Late last week lawyers for the Grocery Manufacturers Association asked a federal judge to shelve the state’s GMO labeling law.

It’s the latest turn in the challenge to Vermont’s first-in-the-nation law, and responds to the Attorney General’s call for the case to be thrown out.

“Our hope is that the court will schedule a hearing for oral arguments sometime in October or November,” said Attorney General Bill Sorrell, D-Vermont.

“What they’ve done is try to pass through this in such a way that it gets resolved sooner rather than later,” said Daniel Richardson, Vermont Bar Association president-elect.

Richardson says both sides benefit from a speedy resolution.

The state could be saved costly legal fees, while the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association could be spared from the court of public opinion.

Richardson says if the court does not rule against requests from both sides, the legal battle will likely be won before it even begins.

“We feel good about the arguments that we’ve made both on the facts and the law,” said Sorrell.

Vermont-based attorneys for the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association did not respond to our interview request.

Richardson says whenever the hearing on the motions does occur, the longer it takes the judge to rule; the greater the chances are that it effectively determines the outcome.

FDA releases updated proposals to improve food safety and help prevent foodborne illness in response to public comments

September 19, 2014
Full Press Release

Based on extensive outreach and public comment, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today proposed revisions to four proposed rules designed to help prevent food-borne illness. When finalized, the proposed rules will implement portions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which aims to strengthen food safety by shifting the focus to preventing food safety problems rather than responding to problems after the fact.

Since FSMA was signed into law in January 2011, the FDA has proposed seven rules to implement FSMA. The four updated proposed rules include: produce-safety; preventive controls for human food; preventive controls for animal food; and the foreign supplier verification program.

The FDA is making changes to key provisions of the four proposed rules based on feedback received from the public during meetings and thousands of comments submitted to the agency on the proposed rules.

In response to public comments, the FDA is proposing to revise the water quality testing provisions in the proposed produce safety rule to account for natural variations in water sources and to adjust its approach to manure and compost used in crop production pending further research on this issue.

The FDA also is proposing, based on feedback received to date, a new definition of which farms would be subject to the produce-safety rule. The proposed rule would not apply to farms with $25,000 or less in produce sales, rather than setting the threshold based on sales of all foods produced on the farm. The updated proposed rules also propose to simplify which entities are covered by the produce safety rule and which would be covered by the preventive controls rules.

The revisions also address the issue of the use of spent grains, which are by-products of alcoholic beverage brewing and distilling that are commonly used as animal food. Concerns were raised that the proposed rules would require brewers and distillers to comply with the full human food and animal food rules if they made their wet spent grains available for animal feed. The updated proposed rule would clarify that human food processors that create by-products used as animal food and are already complying with FDA human food safety requirements — such as producers of wet spent grains — would not need to comply with the full animal food rule if they are already complying with the human-food rule.

Revisions to the foreign-supplier verification proposed rule give importers more flexibility to determine appropriate supplier verification measures based on risk and previous experience with their suppliers.

The FDA will accept comments on the proposed revisions of the four proposed rules for 75 days while continuing to review comments already received on the sections of the proposed rules that are staying the same. The agency will consider both sets of comments before issuing final rules in 2015.

The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.

How to comment

To comment on the proposed revisions of the four proposed rules,

  1. Read the proposed revisions (see Proposed Revisions to FSMA Proposed Rules below).
  2. Starting Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, go to Regulations.gov to submit comments.

VT Digger: In This State: Vermont’s largest fresh foods network is flavored with strong principles

Andrew Nemethy
Sep. 14 2014
Full Article

Mark Curran was a ski bum “banging nails” and sliding the slopes of Okemo in the freewheeling 1970s when he and fellow ski bum Steve Birge had an offbeat epiphany – inspired by iceberg lettuce, wilted broccoli and canned peas.

“People in Ludlow were always complaining about the vegetables in the supermarket,” he recalls. Though it was the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement and whole-grain was the chewy buzzword, mesclun and fresh spinach were a far-off dream in produce aisles, and heritage tomatoes, chioggia beets and fresh snap peas were decades away from appearing on restaurant menus.

Cue the vision thing.

Curran and Birge decided to start a produce market by making runs to Boston to get fresh fruits and vegetables. With total capital of $600, they bought – what else – a used VW bus, painted the slogan “Give Peas A Chance” on it, and in 1978 started taking turns schlepping to Boston’s big wholesale market. To help fill the van, they got five chefs at local restaurants to agree to take some produce as well.

They had no intention then of entering the wholesale fresh- food business and running the huge company they now co-own, Black River Produce, let alone evolving into an essential cog in sustaining and fostering Vermont’s localvore, artisanal, farm-fresh cachet.

Those freewheeling days have provided Curran with tales to tell, which he unspools with relish. There’s the day he came into the farmstand to find a “40-pound raccoon” feasting on their supply of bananas (which they picked over and sold anyway). Or how the ramshackle barn had shaky old wiring and a scavenged décor. Or how produce trips south were always an adventure with “old dilapidated trucks whose drive shafts would fall out on the way.”

Fast-forward 38 years. That rickety bus has morphed into 50 refrigerated trucks distributing Vermont produce, cheeses, yogurt and meats, as well as vegetables and fruits, flowers and seafood that the company hauls from regional out-of-state markets. The partners often call their company “the FedEx of fresh food.”

Today, Black River Produce has some 180 employees and is on track to count $70 million in revenue. And the vision thing? In some ways it’s even more impressive. Black River Produce has become a critical behind-the-scenes hub bringing together around 200 Vermont producers with around 3,000 wholesale customers. Think of the company as the state’s prime farm-to-table enabler, the folks who get everything from Vermont blueberries and kale to coffee and quail, grass-fed beef and succulent pork to your plate, food tray, or co-op shelf.

For almost every Vermont college or university, for hospitals and big institutions, myriad restaurants and small grocers, Black River serves as “your fresh connection,” the motto emblazoned on its trucks.

That’s why Curran was just honored at Shelburne Farms by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility with its Terry Ehrich Award for excellence, an award based on a commitment to “the environment, workplace, progressive public policy and community.”

Curran says the award belongs just as much to his partner, Birge, and to his adopted state.

“Vermont is a special place. Nobody moves to Vermont to make a lot of money,” he says. “I think what Steve and I are most proud of, is we have 180-190 people, and they all have good jobs and benefits and are able to support their families.”

Touring the Black River headquarters in North Springfield with Curran is a head-spinning and mind-bending foray into a 24/7 operation whose extensive scope and impact few people in Vermont comprehend. The building is a classic example of green renovation and reuse, converted from an existing 63,000-square-foot former Idlenot dairy plant. Inside are four refrigerated warehouses, each with temperature zones specially tailored for what they house.

It’s a beehive of bustle on late-night shifts as employees load delivery trucks that depart at 6 a.m. Behind the plant and on every inch of roof are solar panels that can provide up to 80 percent of the plant’s energy. Buyers work their headsets and computers, arranging sales and pickups and taking hundreds of orders a day.

Up the road, Curran drives his visitor to a new $9 million investment in Vermont’s future, another green reuse, this time a derelict former Ben & Jerry’s Peace Pops plant totaling 40,000 square feet. Inside is a state-of-the-art FDA-inspected, humanely designed slaughterhouse that will greatly expand the market for raisers of local beef, pork, lamb and who knows what else in the future.

Already it provides the meat for gourmet prosciutto and salami, says Curran, and three smokers are now being installed in the new plant. It will handle as many as 80 beef cattle or 150 hogs a day, easing a critical bottleneck that will further Vermont’s farm-to-table meat industry.

Curran’s mind offers a never-ending brainstorm of what-if, value-added-for-Vermont possibilities and synergies. Watching through windows as the black hide of a hanging Angus is stripped, he wonders if sustainably raised and environmentally processed leather from Vermont might be a cachet or marketable item for car seats, the biggest market for leather.

He mentions how he’s working to entice farmers to boost hog production by connecting farmers with Vermont Creamery, whose booming yogurt production in Brattleboro produces a lot of whey byproduct – which could feed a lot of Vermont-grown hogs.

“We see the whole picture,” he explains. “… We have that sort of 50,000-foot view of things.”

At 60, is he thinking of retiring? Curran laughs. “We’re finally pretty good at this! Why quit now?” he asks.


Read the PDF here.

VPR: A New Network For Investing In Vermont’s Food Economy

Purchasing a CSA isn’t the only way for individuals to invest in Vermont’s food economy. Or, it won’t be, when Slow Money Vermont gets off the ground.

The new network, an offshoot of the national movement that aims to “bring money back down to earth,” will connect local entrepreneurs with investors in an effort to contribute to the state’s sustainable food economy.

“The idea is really about creating a community of investors that have a shared vision of supporting the local economy and the local food system by putting their money where their mouths are,” according to Eric Becker, chief investment officer at The Clean Yield, an investment advisory firm in Norwich, and one of the organizers of Slow Money Vermont.

The network will serve both traditional investors and “the main street investor,” Becker said in a phone interview Friday. That investor, in his mind, is someone who has between $1,000 and $5,000 that she’s looking to put to use.

“We want to address the full spectrum,” Becker said. “Vermont already has a robust support system for food and farm businesses, as embodied in the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, but the gap that Slow Money will address here is that there hasn’t been a good way for individuals to participate by putting their investment dollars into this area. So they can join a CSA or whatnot, but this is a way for them to actually to take the next step of perhaps taking their money out of Wall Street and putting it into the local community and into the local food system.”

Slow Money Vermont is being incubated by a task force within the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, according to a release from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Becker says the network will work with existing organizations to host events that bring together individual investors and food entrepreneurs. Slow Money networks in Boston and Maine are helping “move not just financial capital, but also social capital,” Becker says. “There’s a lot of relationships being built that pay off in ways beyond just finding that next investment dollar.”

Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh has already benefited from the Slow Money model; farm co-owner Cheryl Devos participated in a national Slow Money event at Shelburne Farms in 2010.

“I pitched … the idea of a creamery in front of an audience, and then eventually came up with investors, partially through that event,” Devos said Friday.

Kimball Brook Farm now has 25 investors, 24 of which are in Vermont, Devos says. “They’ve been fantastic supporters of our business in the ups and downs of getting it started and getting it running.”

“Start-up businesses often don’t have capital that they can get through banks or the usual lenders, and these Slow Money investors help businesses like ours get up and running,” Devos says.

Slow Money Vermont is just taking root, and will grow in the direction that participants train it. For now, Eric Becker says the network is planning to put on a series of events around the state.

A network launch event will take place on September 16 on the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

Burlington Free Press: Vt. Technical College is future site for state lab

Nancy Remsen
September 5, 2014
Full Article

Vermont Technical College received unanimous endorsement Friday as the future site for a new laboratory operated by the state agencies of agricultural and natural resources. The college in Randolph was one of 19 sites state officials evaluated.

After an hour of questions, the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee gave the Department of Buildings the green light to move to the next phase of planning the laboratory project. The new lab would replace twin facilities destroyed when Tropical Storm Irene inundated the Waterbury Office Complex in 2011.

The dual mission guiding the services offered by the two labs is to protect human, animal and environmental health and foster commerce. Some recent laboratory work has included testing 1,000 samples from homes to determine if a dangerous pesticide had been used to eradicate bedbugs and testing of animal feed after Tropical Storm Irene flooded thousands of acres of cropland.

Since Irene, the two agencies have operated with reduced laboratory capabilities in five rented spaces, with the bulk of their work carried out in the Hills Building owned by the University of Vermont. The lease runs out in 2017 — which led state officials to focus new attention on finding a location and constructing a new building.

The charge for the two labs is to protect human and animal health, environmental health and foster commerce. Some recent laboratory work has included testing 1,000 samples from homes to determine if a dangerous pesticide had been used to eradicate bedbugs and testing of animal feed after Tropical Storm Irene flooded thousands of acres of cropland.

Several lawmakers on the oversight panel noted that details of the laboratory’s relationship with the college had yet to be negotiated. Despite the nominal lease, they worried the state might be stuck with some unexpected “overhead” expense.

“What is the financial arrangement?” asked Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia.

“We don’t view this as a revenue generator,” assured Dan Smith, interim president of Vermont Technical College. He said locating the lab at the college would offer myriad opportunities for students and faculty to collaborate with lab staff and for lab staff to utilize college classrooms and other spaces.

“This is not just another building on a college campus to us,” Smith wrote in a letter shared with lawmakers in advance of Friday’s meeting. “This is an opportunity to maximize the state’s limited resources in a way that serves the most Vermonters and will benefit generations of Vermonters to come.”

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said talks with the college about ways to collaborate could begin next week — if lawmakers selected the technical college site. Buildings department officials also said talks would get underway on property management issues such as plowing, shared heating and cleaning.

State officials had made replacing the twin labs a lower priority compared to constructing a new state psychiatric hospital and replacing the office space lost in Waterbury. The hospital opened this summer and the new office complex is under construction.

Legislators also asked the state to research whether the laboratory services could be provided privately.

The study, delivered last winter, recommended the state continue to operate its own laboratory program. The report also said the two agencies should operate a consolidated laboratory.

Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said the plan is for the laboratory to “sit in Agriculture” and for some laboratory personnel now in ANR to transfer to the agriculture agency. “The programs in the Department of Environmental Conservation would be customers of the lab,” he said. There would be a board with representatives from both agencies to oversee the collaboration.

Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, asked why the University of Vermont failed to score well as a potential site, given it, too, had potential to offer student and faculty collaboration. UVM proposed two possible locations.

“There was a very large flaw with both sites — the amount of room available,” explained Sandra Vitzthum, project manager with the Department of Buildings.

Ashe also asked if there would be workforce problems by choosing a more rural location rather than one in Washington or Chittenden counties.

Ross argued that it was more important to locate the lab in the best place to achieve its public mission rather than try to accommodate workers’ preferences based on their commutes.

Lawmakers also voiced concern that the design of the laboratory could boost future operating costs. That was what happened with the new state psychiatric hospital.

“I would put that forward as something to pay attention to,” Kitchel told state officials.

Assured that the Legislature would have future opportunities to reject the site or tweak the project as it unfolds, the committee voted 9-0 to select the Vermont Technical College site.